Fertility & cancer
On this page: How cancer can affect fertility | The reproductive systems | The female reproductive system | The male reproductive system
Many factors can affect a person’s fertility. It naturally declines
with age, but it can also be affected by being
under- or overweight, smoking or having a health issue, such
as endometriosis, pelvic disease or cancer.
Fertility problems may be the result of either the woman or the
man being unable to conceive, or both.
If you aren’t able to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term after
one year of regular, unprotected sex, it’s known as infertility.
How cancer can affect fertility
Cancer and its treatment may cause fertility problems. The impact
will depend on the type of cancer and treatment you have.
- Women may not produce enough eggs, have problems with the
hormones signalling between the brain and the ovaries, or have
damaged reproductive organs. Reproductive organs may be
removed during an operation. See women’s fertility and cancer
- Men may experience fertility issues related to the sperm
production and quality – for instance, the sperm may not have
the right characteristics, or there can be issues related to sperm
transport, such as movement (motility) and blocked pathways
that carry sperm. Sometimes reproductive organs are removed
during an operation. See men’s fertility and cancer treatment.
There are ways to overcome infertility. Many people have medical
procedures to help them conceive – these are known as assisted
reproductive technology or fertility treatments. Find out more about some common
fertility treatment options for women and men.
Infertility is relatively common – one in six Australian couples has
problems conceiving or falling pregnant for a range of reasons.
Infertility can be difficult to come to terms with. See our information
about emotional and relationship issues.
The reproductive systems
Being familiar with the male and female reproductive systems may
help you to understand fertility issues and treatments.
A healthy woman of childbearing age releases an egg (ovum – the
female reproductive cell) each month. This is called ovulation.
The egg travels from the ovary, down the fallopian tube and into
Sperm (the male reproductive cell) is contained in the semen. This
fluid is ejaculated from the penis during orgasm (sexual climax).
If sperm reaches a woman’s egg, this is called fertilisation. This
may lead to implantation into the lining of the uterus, where the
cells can multiply and develop into a foetus. If it is not fertilised,
the egg and lining of the uterus will come out of the body during
the woman’s monthly period (menstruation).
The female reproductive system
The female reproductive system allows a woman to conceive
a baby and become pregnant. It consists of the following organs:
Ovaries Two small, oval-shaped organs in the lower
abdomen. They contain follicles that hold immature eggs
(oocytes) that eventually become mature eggs. The ovaries also
release the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
Uterus (womb)The hollow organ where a baby (foetus)
grows. It is joined to the vagina by the cervix.
Fallopian tubes Tubes that connect each ovary to the uterus.
Cervix The lower, cylinder-shaped neck of the uterus. It
produces moisture to lubricate the vagina. It also holds a foetus
in the uterus during pregnancy and widens during childbirth.
Vagina (birth canal) A muscular tube that extends from the
opening of the uterus to the vulva. It is the passageway through
which menstrual blood flows, sexual intercourse occurs and a
baby is born.
Vulva The external part of a woman’s sex organs.
Women usually menstruate until the age of 45–55, when monthly
periods end. This is called menopause and it indicates the natural
end of a woman’s reproductive years. If it occurs before age 45, this
may be called early menopause.
The male reproductive system
The male reproductive system allows a man to father a baby.
It consists of the following organs:
Testicles Two small, egg-shaped glands that make and store
sperm, and produce the male hormone testosterone, which is
responsible for the development of male characteristics, sexual
drive (libido) and the ability to have an erection.
Scrotum The pouch of skin behind the penis containing
Epididymis A structure that stores immature sperm, attached
to the back of each testicle and the spermatic cord.
Spermatic cords and vas deferens The tubes running
from each testicle to the penis. They contain blood vessels,
nerves, and lymph vessels, and carry sperm towards the penis.
Penis The main external sex organ, through which urine and
Prostate A gland that produces fluid which makes up
a large part of semen. It is located near nerves, blood vessels
and muscles needed to control bladder function and to achieve
Seminal vesicles Glands close to the prostate that produce
part of the semen.
Reviewed by: Prof Martha Hickey, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of
Melbourne, VIC; Franca Agresta, Clinical Research Manager, Melbourne IVF, VIC; Alyssa White, National Publications
Project Manager, Cancer Council NSW; and Georgia Mills, Cancer Survivor.